What If Arlington Were Still Part of D.C.?

Winners of the Arlington Historical Society and Columbia Lodge #285 essay contest

The place we call home wasn’t always part of the state of Virginia. In 1801, the land that includes present-day Arlington County and the City of Alexandria was ceded to the federal government to become part of the new Federal District. It wasn’t until nearly a half-century later that the land was returned to Virginia sovereignty, at which point the entire jurisdiction was referred to as, “Alexandria County, Virginia.”

In 1871, the new Virginia constitution designated Alexandria City and Alexandria County as two separate and independent jurisdictions. And in 1920, by order of the Virginia General Assembly, “Alexandria County” changed its name to “Arlington County” so as to avoid any confusion with the City of Alexandria.

But imagine, if you will, what Arlington might be like today had the Retrocession of 1846-47 never occurred, and the land on this side of the Potomac was still part of Washington, D.C. Would Robert E. Lee have joined the Union Army? Would Arlington boast the same stellar public school system that is has today? Would it enjoy the same economic prosperity? These were among the questions tackled by local high school students in a 2013 essay contest sponsored by the Arlington Historical Society (AHS) and Columbia (Masonic) Lodge #285.

Washington-Lee high school student James Hughes won first place (with a prize of $1,000) in this year’s competition, while fellow W-L student Ilana Shapiro won second place ($500). We are pleased to share their insightful essays below.

For information about the 2014 historical essay competition and theme, contact AHS president John P. Richardson at johnjoyce2@verizon.net or visit the AHS web site at www.arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org

First Place

James Hughes

In September of 1846, residents of Alexandria and present-day Arlington County voted in favor of retrocession from Washington D.C. and in March of 1847, Virginia accepted jurisdiction over the area.  Had that not occurred, Arlington County could be drastically different today. The most drastic possible change would deal with the decision of the “County’s best known citizen of all time.” Although Robert E. Lee had deep “ties to Virginia,” through his family, the location of his home within the boundaries of the nation’s capital could have aided his natural inclination towards the “preservation of the Union” and caused him to accept the command of the Federal Army as was offered in 1861.  Lee’s command of the Union’s army would have ended the war quicker, helped enact Lincoln’s plan of reconstruction and lessened the effects of the occupation and fortification of Arlington. This would contribute to greater economic prosperity and create lasting social and political differences as a result of lenient reconstruction policies.

Robert E. Lee was vitally important to the Southern cause and it could be argued that “without Lee’s generalship, the Confederacy would have crumbled earlier.” Historians such as Grade McWhiney and Perry Jamieson may criticize Lee for being too aggressive, yet his aggression would have been an asset for the Union. Lee’s military genius may not have been able to achieve a victory at First Manassas, being unable to anticipate the arrival of Joe Johnston and with the Confederate troops commanded by Beauregard. However, Lee could have at least avoided the over-cautiousness of McClellan and used the superior resources of the army to full effect early in the war to win a decisive victory. Additionally, without Lee, the Confederate army would not have been aggressive enough to fight the “Seven Days” campaign and drive back the Union.  With the advantage in numbers and equipment that the Union enjoyed, Lee could conceivably have captured Richmond in the summer of 1862, if not earlier, given McClellan’s delay.  Given the loss of Virginia, and the majority of the South’s scarce industry, the confederacy would have fallen much faster, aided by the geographical advantages given by the Union’s control of the major rivers.

The “economic base of the County was undermined” by the system of forts, trenches, and encampments created for the protection of the capital that negatively affected the agricultural activities of the county’s inhabitants.  Although many of the fortifications were built early in the war, the perceived need for them was influenced by the “tides of war.”  Construction could have ceased in 1863 or earlier. This would have meant that Forts C. F. Smith, Whipple, and Berry would not have been constructed.  The dismantling of the defensive works would have begun earlier than 1865 and agricultural prosperity would have returned earlier.  Instead of total farmland falling from 15,260 acres in 1860 to 8,095 acres in 1870, the effect would have been lessened by the shorter war and the largest farm, the Arlington estate, would have remained in Lee’s possession.

The difficulties of obtaining financing for infrastructure projects such as the Alexandria Canal caused financial problems that led to the movement to retrocede from Washington D. C.  The Congressional Committee on the District reported that the original cession of Alexandria was “injurious to the people of that portion which was ceded by Virginia.”  This, however, would be remedied by the political goodwill earned by Lee as a hero of the Civil War, enabling access to the funding and preferential treatment desired.  The increased prosperity and “relative affluence” of 1900 would have been greater than was indicated by the growth of the number of small farms from five to 112.  While population doubled and manufacturing saw a slight increase, this would have been greater with an increased access to investment caused by the lessened agricultural destruction and the decreased cost of the war for the federal government. 

With the earlier cessation of the war, the South would have been treated with greater leniency by either Lincoln or moderate Republicans in Congress with less reason to be vindictive.  This would have led to less confiscation of property and greater political participation for Confederate leaders, resulting in greater land concentration.  With the political support of former Confederates, plantation and large farm owners would continue to dominate the economy and oppose industrialization.  Additionally, the end of slavery would have encouraged the cultivation of crops other than cotton, diversifying the economy and decreasing Southern dependence on outside manufacturers. 

With a shortened war, the Union death toll of about 360,000 and the comparable number of Confederates who died would be smaller, which would give northern manufacturing both a larger labor force and market.  The increased interdependence between the North and the South following the same pattern as prior to the Civil War would benefit Arlington and Washington, D. C. existing in a central location as they are.  More trade also means more taxes under a Republican Congress, enabling the growth of government and the funding of infrastructure, both of which would bring prosperity to local areas that supplied the government with employees. 

Another factor that grew the federal government during the reconstruction era was the creation of the Freedmen Bureau to provide basic health care, education, and jobs to blacks and poor whites.  A further development was the establishment of the Freedman’s Village “at the Southern end of the Arlington estate.”  Had Lee been a Union General, seizure of his estate would have been much less likely and Arlington Cemetery, as well as “the single most important lunge ahead” and “the seed for the establishment of other nearby neighborhoods” would not be located there. 

In a more general sense, African Americans would likely have faced greater difficulties in obtaining suffrage, with limited opportunities to fight in the war before 1863. Without the 15th Amendment, and with Lincoln’s conciliatory methods, African Americans would have faced greater discrimination, a much more difficult battle for civil rights, and perhaps even underrepresentation today.

Had the retrocession not occurred, it could have drastically changed the outcome of the Civil War. Lee would be a national hero and there would be many more schools named after him and George Washington. His mansion and the surrounding land would be a museum or private property, and Arlington County would be superficially different in organization and naming. It would continue to rely on the government for jobs and economic opportunities, but the country as a whole could have been more prosperous.

The county and the country’s ethnic diversity and political system could have been compromised with greater prejudice against minorities. In essence, there would be no Arlington County as we know it today.


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Pratt, Sherman. Arlington County Virginia, a Modern History. Arlington, VA: S. Pratt, 1997.

Rose, Cornelia B. Arlington County, Virginia: a History. Arlington, VA: Arlington Historical Society, 1976.


Second Place

Ilana Shapiro

At the time of the founding of the United States of America, the Founding Fathers chose the land north of the Potomac River as the site for the nation’s capital, and one hundred square miles of land was marked off from Virginia and Maryland in the shape of a square. The area of this land south of the river became the Alexandria County portion, in the early 1790s. Residents of Alexandria County soon became agitated because construction of a causeway cut off commerce between Alexandria and Georgetown. Three attempts were made at retrocession by the citizens of Alexandria, and in 1846 the request was finally granted by Congress and signed by President Polk. However, citizens of the “country” part of the county, what was to become Arlington, had voted against retrocession. Arlington became its own distinct county after the Civil War, in 1870, when the City of Alexandria seceded due to a clause in the new Virginia constitution, leaving the county of Alexandria. The name was then changed to Arlington in 1920. Thus, the entire process of retrocession took over 100 years and involved multiple steps.

Had Alexandria County not retroceded from Washington, D.C., Arlington would still be a part of the nation’s capital. If the retrocession had not occurred, Arlington would be very different in a few key ways. First, as a part of D.C., Arlington would not enjoy the right of representation in Congress, which would affect political attitude. Second, the education system in Arlington would be much weaker, as a part of D.C. schools. Third, buildings in Arlington would have to comply with D.C. standards.

One aspect of life in Arlington that would be different had Arlington not retroceded would be representation in Congress. Arlington is a part of the eighth district of Virginia, which has a total of eleven representatives in Congress. Representatives in Congress help write legislation, serve on committees, and vote on bills and resolutions, representing their constituents. This ensures that Arlingtonians are properly represented in Congress.

In contrast, D.C. voters are represented by a member in Congress who is entitled to a seat but no right to vote on legislation (District of Columbia). Therefore, D.C. residents are not entitled to the same representation as Arlington residents are. In addition, laws passed by the D.C. city council, as well as the budget, are reviewed by Congress and subject to approval.  If Arlington was a part of D.C., it would be subject to the same restrictions on representation that D.C. faces today. However, the issue would be on a broader scale because more people, the combined residents of Arlington and D.C., would be subject to the lack of Congressional representation. The issue of living in the nation’s capital but not having fair representation is demoralizing to D.C. residents. Arlingtonians who today value their representation in Congress would be frustrated at the taxation without representation they would face as a part of D.C. This would arouse political action in the outspoken residents of Arlington. Therefore, had the retrocession not occurred, Arlington residents would be facing frustration at their lack of representation in Congress, which would incite political action in the community.

Another way that life in Arlington would be dissimilar today had the retrocession not occurred is that the education system would be drastically different. Arlington prides itself in its highly-ranked education system and the attention and resources it allocates to each student. In contrast, D.C. public schools face major problems with low test scores and high truancy rates.

Arlington has a much lower enrollment than D.C., with 22,723 students in 2013, compared to D.C.’s 46,060. Because Arlington has much smaller enrollment, it is more able to focus on fewer schools, with increased accountability that comes with a smaller system. If Arlington was a part of the D.C. school system, it would increase the enrollment by 50%, swelling an already stressed school system. More students would mean larger schools, worse student-to-teacher ratios, and less funding per pupil. This would have long-term effects on the economy and demographic of Arlington, as students with poorer educations work in lower-sector jobs, and the higher-level jobs go to better-educated people from other areas. Consequently, if Arlington was still a part of D.C., its education system would not be as strong as it is today, with negative economic effects for Arlington’s economy.

Another aspect of Arlington that would be different had the retrocession not occurred is that there would be a restriction on building heights, which would affect development in many areas of Arlington. According to the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, buildings in the District of Columbia may not be more than 130 feet tall.  Arlington’s tallest building stands at 390 feet, with several other buildings standing close in height. These buildings are located in Arlington’s urbanized centers, mainly Rosslyn and Ballston. These buildings are used for mainly business and luxury housing purposes, providing the type of office and living space that is less available in D.C. The attraction of these high-rise buildings brings business to Arlington, as well as high-paying renters, boosting Arlington’s economy. Low- and middle-income D.C. residents are having difficulty finding affordable housing in the District. Thus, Arlington’s leniency on building height when compared with D.C. makes it easier to build high-rise buildings to provide more affordable housing to these residents, bringing tenants to Arlington. In addition, the high-rises in areas like Ballston and Rosslyn establish a prestige and legitimacy that brings in business.

However, if Arlington was a part of D.C., it would have to abide by the building restriction, and areas like Rosslyn would not be able to build as high. Consequently, it would be more difficult to bring in corporate business and tenants, affecting Arlington’s economy. These businesses would instead be located outside of the District in areas like Fairfax and Alexandria.

In conclusion, life in Arlington would be somewhat different had the retrocession of 1790 not occurred. This would be because Arlington, as a part of the District of Columbia, would have to abide by its laws and regulations. D.C.’s lack of full representation in Congress would extend to Arlington, which would be frustrating to its residents who, like the residents of D.C. today, would find their lack of representation in the nation’s capital unfair. This discontent would lead to political protest.

In addition, Arlington as part of D.C. would be a part of its education system, suffering from the same issues that D.C. students face today. This would affect the quality of education of Arlington residents, and their future careers, impacting Arlington’s economy negatively. Lastly, the D.C. building regulations would apply to Arlington, restricting building height and causing urban development to move to areas further outside of the District. The retrocession for Arlington positively affected the outcome of the county today.


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